Reflections on a food delivery workshop that almost did not happen

Niels van Doorn

Part one: From an idea to its realization

One important thing I regularly noticed throughout my fieldwork in New York City is the discrepancy between the everyday exigencies of platform-mediated gig work and ongoing policy and legal debates about whether/how to properly regulate labor platforms. This is not just about the temporal difference between fast paced “on-demand” service work and the decidedly more glacial pace of legal and policy change (if and where such change is indeed accomplished), but it also pertains to how the variety and specificity of the issues faced by workers “on the ground” and on the go tends to become abstracted and reduced to more general categories of problems that can be dealt with on the level of regulatory decision-making. While these incongruities are to a large extent inevitable and are in some ways mitigated by the gradually increasing salience of ethnographic research in policy circles, they can and do result in policy and legislative responses that (partly) fail to address what actually matters to platform workers on a daily basis. Moreover, by the time such responses become operational, chances are that platform companies like Uber or Handy will have updated how they manage and remunerate their workforce – as they regularly do.

I started wondering whether there wasn’t something else I could do

I am obviously not suggesting that targeted legal or policy measures are futile, because they continue to be vital tools available to public officials responsible for safeguard worker and consumer protections. But as I engaged in more conversations with couriers and cleaners about their experiences with the various apps they used, I started wondering whether there wasn’t something else I could do – perhaps there was another, more immediate and experimental way of utilizing my research time and resources to not just study this form of work but also to improve it? It was clear that couriers in particular had a lot of critical perspectives and questions about app-based delivery work, which they not only shared with me but often also with each other in private Facebook groups and subreddits. Many felt that these online spaces were the only dependable destinations for getting work-related information and advice, while also serving as hubs where frustrations could be shared and a sense of community established. There was a general consensus among the couriers I spoke with that the delivery companies they worked for structurally came up short in these respects. Furthermore, the idea/feeling that these companies don’t listen to their “delivery partners” and don’t care about their wellbeing was especially pervasive among couriers who did this work “fulltime” (i.e. at least 40 hours per week) and had years of experience. Although many of these men had grown cynical to varying degrees, they still showed a keen interest in voicing their concerns and complaints directly to company representatives – if given the opportunity. Accordingly, I began thinking about what such an opportunity would look like and how it could be realized.

Drawing on my experience with organizing and moderating the “Meet the Gig Worker” panel at the 2017 Reshaping Work conference in Amsterdam (see research note #1), what I had in mind was an event that would likewise bring together workers and company representatives to engage in a frank conversation about the opportunities and challenges of platform-mediated gig work. The innovative element of the panel, at the time, had been to give workers a clear voice at an academic conference that also featured contributions by unions, startups, and industry incumbents. In New York City’s bourgeoning and crowded food delivery industry, where six companies vie for dominance (or at least a significant market share), such worker voice is sorely lacking. In contrast to the widespread media attention and union support for their European peers, the (tens of) thousands of app-mediated food delivery workers in NYC have received very little recognition or backing from institutions that could make a difference (except when the matter of concern is the city’s controversial ebike legislation and its enforcement). In terms of grassroots organizing, there had been the short-lived New York Messenger Alliance, whose 2016 efforts were being briefly revived by the Bike Worker Advocacy Project as I was beginning my fieldwork in February 2018. For some months, BWAP was trying to get things off the ground and could count on the support from the militant New York Taxi Workers Alliance, but due to the latter’s campaigning focus on the taxi and ride-hailing industry and the former’s inability to mobilize a sufficient number of active members, this promising initiative seemed to be losing its momentum as the year progressed.

While it was certainly not my intention or ambition to fill the void in this respect (as if the one-off event I was aiming to put together could somehow substitute for sustained collective action), I did want to contribute something – a platform of sorts – that would enable courier representatives to share their experiences and ask critical questions in a face-to-face conversation with the people who are responsible for shaping their daily labor process but are usually not responsive to them. Even if such a conversation could not be expected to result in major changes to how food delivery platforms operate and treat their workforce in NYC, I hoped it would at least help to give couriers a voice and a face, thereby offering a valuable alternative to venting one’s frustrations in closed Facebook groups. Also, I was curious to see what would happen once I got everyone in a room together – how open and honest could the discussion actually be and would the different parties at the table be willing to really listen to each other? Would some companies perhaps be willing to make some concessions? Much would depend on how I framed and structured the event, which, I decided, should take the form of a workshop.

The workshop, as I began to conceive it, was going to be organized around the following question: What can on-demand food delivery platforms do to improve the working conditions and income opportunities of their diverse courier fleets? The idea was to tackle this central question in a very hands-on way, zooming in on a number of concrete issues that couriers are facing each day they go out on the road. To structure this process, in which couriers would take the lead, these issues would be categorized into five discussion themes, adapted from the nine principles of fair work established by the Fairwork Foundation: Pay, Transparency, Accountability, Support, and Flexibility/Stability. These themes could then be further tailored to fit the app-based food delivery context in New York, by drawing on my interviews with couriers and on participant observation in Facebook groups dedicated to food delivery work. Alright, so now I had a clear image of the workshop’s purpose and format. But who was I going to invite and how would I get these parties to participate? By then I had met enough couriers who I knew would be interested in joining and I was pretty sure there would be academic interest as well, but to get the companies on board (all of them or only a few?) was going to be challenging. I also needed some institutional support, to put some weight behind my initiative and to help me find/fund a fitting location for the workshop.

I first decided to reach out to my contact at Uber Benelux, to see if he could take the temperature in the Uber Eats division and put in a good word for me. I figured that once I had a commitment from Uber, it would perhaps be easier to convince other companies to join. My contact connected me to their Global Policy Lead for Uber Eats, Emilie Boman, who was very receptive to my workshop idea and expressed her interest in participating – even after I emphasized that the workshop was not going to be a policy event. She was, however, keen on knowing which other companies were going to be present. So was I. Fortunately, I had another industry contact whom I could ask for help and when I did he really came through, forwarding my invitation to the CEOs of DoorDash and Caviar as well as the COO of Grubhub. That left me with Postmates and a local company called Relay, which makes its delivery fleet of independent contractors available to restaurants with pending orders but does not have a consumer-facing app. I reached out to Relay’s CEO through LinkedIn and, a while later, also used this platform to contact a senior policy person at Postmates. The logic behind this approach was that I’d first try to get the attention of senior management at these companies, who could then delegate things to the appropriate people if they were interested in my proposal, instead of taking the bottom-up route which tends to take a longer time before it reaches the desk of someone in the position to make a decision on whether or not to participate.

Eventually, however, my approach largely failed in this case. It is here that I should make a long and occasionally frustrating story short, by merely summarizing some of what followed next. This allows me to skip to what really matters here: the proceedings of the food delivery workshop that almost did not happen. First, my industry contact informed me that DoorDash declined my invitation and Caviar’s CEO forwarded it to their head of courier operations. Grubhub, meanwhile, never got back to him (or to me). Relay’s CEO initially responded with much interest, but after a lunch meeting during which he made some remarkably candid comments about their business model and hiring practices, I never heard back from him again. Postmates did express their interest in participating in the workshop and – after multiple attempts to reach the right person in their organization – so did Caviar. This was not a bad result: having representatives from Uber, Postmates and Caviar in a room together with 7-8 couriers and some academic experts would make for an interesting and potentially productive workshop. In the meantime I had also partnered with Data & Society’s Labor Engagement Lead, Aiha Nguyen, who took care of the facilities and helped me to further conceptualize and plan the workshop. Things were looking good and everything was starting to come together until Caviar and then Postmates pulled out shortly before the event was scheduled. Both companies claimed “time conflicts” and “changed priorities” were the reason for their cancellation, but I wonder whether they felt completely comfortable with the workshop’s worker-centric format – as opposed to a more policy-oriented event – and I think they were ultimately suspicious of its motivations and/or concerned about its outcomes. Be that as it may, to have these companies cancel on such short notice was a tough blow, especially because I was now worried that Uber and some of the couriers who mainly use Postmates/Caviar would also pull out. To their credit, however, they remained committed to the workshop and on the 24th of August I had the pleasure of welcoming Emilie Boman and Jordan Chapman (Uber’s Head of Courier Operations, who attended via Zoom), seven couriers, and a handful of academic colleagues to the long oval table in the middle of a sleek rented workspace on the 9th floor of an office building in Manhattan.

Part 2 (Workshop Proceedings) to follow soon!